By: Deanna Green

If you follow our student and scholarship news, you’ve already heard that the pandemic had a dramatic effect on student mental health in America. While all youth felt the impacts, many experts say high school and post-secondary students experienced the worst.  

Looking back, the transition to remote learning, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding academic and personal futures, created a perfect storm of stressors and anxieties for them. Social isolation, disrupted routines, and the loss of traditional support systems compounded the usual pressures of academic achievement. The situation is so fraught that the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told the Senate Finance Committee that the obligation to act on student mental health is, “not just medical, it’s moral.” 

Working closely with students through our scholarship program, I’ve seen the devastating affects mental health has had on postsecondary enrollment, persistence and completion. So, to get a deeper understanding of these challenges and potential solutions, I reached out to a licensed clinical social worker and former scholarship recipient named Kelly Bice. As a recent graduate, Kelly brings both personal experience and professional insight to the table. Her responses offer practical strategies that we can all use to make positive change on this critical community issue. Now, let’s dive in! 

Tell us briefly about your background and why you became a counselor. 

I’m a social worker, but after the pandemic I went back to school for my master’s degree so I could become a licensed clinical social worker. My passion for the work came through my own upbringing. 

Early on, I saw that it “takes a village” to raise a child, regardless of what socioeconomic background someone comes from. Personally, I was fortunate to work with and find support from many caring adults in my community. These relationships made a big difference on my own outcomes, especially earning a degree because my parents didn’t graduate from high school. 

The last few years have been particularly stressful for students. What are you and other counselors seeing that you didn’t see a few years ago? 

As clinicians, we are seeing higher rates of anxiety. Specifically, social anxiety and panic disorder are on the rise, especially for children and youth who have a “pre-disposition.” This is usually the case when family members have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or other mental health challenges. Additionally, complaints of chronic somatic symptoms associated with anxiety such as nausea or headaches are increasing, where previously these symptoms were often acute and generally less frequent.

What are some stressors faced by high school and college students? 

Too many to count and sometimes more we cannot see. Children that are members of Generation Z are experiencing a lot of change. They are being exposed to more media with less supervision. There is also a lot of uncertainty because their figurative “roadmap” changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to all the changes, we’ve seen self-esteem decrease more broadly. 

The pandemic was traumatic for many, causing school-aged children to experience grief and loss related to their academic experience. Now, many in this cohort have a sense that something awful might always be around the corner. These fearful feelings and thoughts are overwhelming for many and often arise at school, which is an understandably triggering environment given their recent experiences. All of this makes it more difficult to focus and succeed. We’re seeing that fewer students are interested in college as a result.  

What are the biggest barriers to student mental health treatment? 

There are not enough providers available because the industry is experiencing a pinch, which has left school mental health staff shorthanded. On one hand, a lot of professionals are leaving due to burnout from the pandemic. On the other, more people are seeking services because of all the reasons I’ve described and more. Each problem is amplifying the other, so we are left with a shortage of counselors, psychologists, social workers and therapists. The lack of services is a universal experience, but even more pronounced for people seeking evaluations for Autism Spectrum Disorders. I do expect things will start to improve as people recognize the growing career opportunity and new graduates enter the field. 

What would you say to a student who is going through something heavy?  

Remember — if you are struggling with anxiety — when we avoid situations, we stay in our comfort zone. With exposure, we can learn and grow. Find and use coping skills that work for you. You may already know a few because everyone has them. Breathing deeply is a start.  Regarding panic attacks, it may be helpful to know that nobody can die from one. They are scary and uncomfortable though! Knowing the facts about panic attacks can help you manage them.   

What local resources are available for high school and college students to support their mental health or seek help during crisis?  

Call 988 if someone is struggling with a crisis. This is the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, so saving it in your contacts might save a life. Clark County Teen Talk (360-397-2428) is another great resource. This is a non-judgmental, peer-to-peer support line and safe space for students to talk about their problems. If you’re lonely, it provides an opportunity to talk to other teens. The connection is critical, but youth also feel affirmed and seen by others who are struggling with similar problems — academic pressure, social isolation, conflict with loved ones, being targeted at school, etc.  

Are there any tips you would give to someone looking for mental health services? 

If you are interested in accessing behavioral health services or seeking medication to treat depression or anxiety, start with your primary care provider (PCP). If you don’t have a PCP, you can visit a community health clinic like Sea Mar. A good indicator for scheduling an appointment is if you start to sense that you’re “not feeling like yourself.” While you can’t just walk in, some of the larger behavioral health providers in Clark County are The Children’s Center, Columbia River Mental Services and Family Solutions Additionally, while there is no substitute for direct health services, excellent resources exist online. Some apps I recommend are Headspace and Mindshift – Anxiety Canada.

What can we do as a community — parents, fellow students, alums and others — to address issues around student mental health?  

Never stop talking about mental health to others, especially student mental health. It doesn’t have to be about you or your experiences. Share conversations and resources like the ones we’re discussing here. Talking about mental health in general is so needed. Also, if you see something, say something. 

As a society, we have a problem with being vulnerable and opening up about our challenges. This only adds to the stigma around depression and anxiety.  Even if you cannot solve a problem, talking to someone you trust — in-person or online — can help you feel a little better. This simple act helps us feel closer to others and releases “feel good” hormones. It is a continual process to achieve wellness. It does not happen overnight. 

Is there anything we haven’t touched on that concerns you about student mental health? 

Most influencers on social media are not mental health professionals, so make sure to verify your information before doing something that is not helpful, or even harmful. For example, some dismiss assessments such as the PHQ-9 and GAD-7. These tests help us measure symptoms and conceptualize disorders like depression and anxiety. As licensed professionals, we use objective data to track mental health and use evidence-based interventions to meet treatment plan goals. Along the way we are assessing and adjusting as needed because treatment must be individualized!   

If you are struggling with mental health and would like access to legitimate resources, I also recommend checking out the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration). You can also contact 211 to access a whole host of community resources, including domestic violence services, homeless shelters and food banks. 

Let’s All Do Our Part for Student Mental Health

Many thanks to Kelly Bice, MS for her incredible tips and resources. By learning from passionate professionals like her, we foster the understanding needed to tackle difficult issues and support one another.  

I hope this conversation provides students, educators and families with a few more tools to navigate these difficult conversations and access support in southwest Washington. Mental health is a part of all our lives, so there is no doubt that we can all play a part in supporting student mental health in our communities.

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About The Author

Deanna Green

Deanna was born and raised in Vancouver, Washington and graduated from both Clark College and WSU Vancouver. Her personal and professional experiences have made her passionate about providing equitable opportunities for students. Outside of work, she enjoys spending free time with her family and friends, attending community events and taking spontaneous drives through the Columbia River Gorge.